Imagine that you want to learn a new musical instrument.
The piano, say.
So you find a teacher and head to your first lesson.
You walk in and see a big, beautiful grand piano in the middle of the room.
Your teacher introduces herself and spends the next hour talking passionately about the history of the piano and how it developed over the years.
You don't play a single note during the lesson…
But that's fine, you think. A bit of background is important, after all.
So you come back again the next week, and in this lesson things really get exciting…
The teacher shows you inside the piano – she lifts the lid of the piano and shows you inside.
She talks about the strings, how the hammers hit the strings, how the keys are attached to the hammers.
Still no playing.
Lesson three is about the acoustics of the piano – how the soundboard amplifies the sound of the reverberating strings. And then there are the pedals, and what they do to the strings.
But still… no playing.
In lesson four, you're excited when you sit down at the piano and the teacher lifts the lid on the keyboard.
“Before we start playing, you need to learn some theory,” she says.
For the next three months, you learn about harmony – tones and semitones, the 12 keys, scales and arpeggios, and you get written theory exercises to do at home after every lesson.
But you still haven't played a note of that beautiful big grand piano.
Why It's Important To Differentiate Between Theory & Practice
Your intuition will tell you that this probably isn't the best way to go about learning the piano.
Wouldn’t you agree? Leave me a comment at the end of the post if you agree that you’d probably get frustrated if your piano lessons looked like this.
But why, exactly?
Why, exactly, is it so bad to learn all this theory without playing the piano itself?
After all, this stuff is important! Isn't it? You do need to learn it.
Well, two reasons…
Reason No. 1: We Learn By Doing
Firstly, a lot of stuff is best learned by doing.
Not everything is best learned theoretically.
Sometimes the best way to learn something is to roll your sleeves up and work it out by yourself.
When you do something, all your different senses come together to create an “experience”.
And things you learn from experience are infinitely more powerful than learning those same things from the pages of a book.
Point is, your teacher didn't need to spend months lecturing you about music theory… you could have worked a good chunk of it out on your own by just playing.
Reason No. 2: Sometimes You're Just Not Ready Yet
Now here’s the second reason.
And this is a bit more subtle.
At any point in your learning journey, there are certain things you’re ready to learn, and things you’re not ready for yet.
There’s even a name for this concept in learning theory: the “Zone of Proximal Development”, the idea that things are learnable as long as they fall within this special zone – which is just beyond your current level of knowledge.
If, on the other hand, you try to learn too much, too soon…
You’re unlikely to learn it because you’re not ready for it.
And as a beginner, the stuff you’re not ready to learn yet is…
There's no point teaching me how I can use the pedals of the piano to change the sound quality of the notes I'm playing before I've learnt to control my fingers on the keyboard yet.
I'm not ready to learn it yet.
Applying These Concepts To Language Learning
In the case of the piano, this is probably quite obvious to you.
But when it comes to language learning, there’s a big blind spot around this issue.
In particular, when it comes to GRAMMAR!
Walk into any language classroom around the world, and I'd put money on what is being taught at that exact moment.
Open up and language textbook and flick to a random page. What's on that page?
Can it really be that all that grammar is so important that it needs to be learned at that exact time?
But here's the thing…
Novice language learners all think that grammar is far more important than it actually is.
“How can I start speaking before I know the grammar?”
I've lost count of the number of times I've heard this.
“I haven't learnt the present perfect and the future conditional and the I-don't-know-what yet… so I'll just learn that for a while and I'll start speaking later.”
Just like music theory…grammar is only useful when you're ready for it.
You've seen those big thick grammar books, right?
And they're thick!
And there's a lot of stuff inside them.
Rules, verb tables, exceptions to the rules.
And all of that stuff is going to be useful to you at some point – but probably not yet.
When Is The Best Time To Learn Grammar?
The best time to learn a particular grammar point, you see, is not when it comes up in your textbook.
The absolute best most helpful most awesome time to learn a bit of grammar is when you've just been into a cafe and tried to order something using a phrase you've learnt…
But something wasn't quite right and the guy understood you… but the message didn't get across quite right.
At the time, you thought it was right but it wasn't quite and something wasn't completely clear…
And the reason why is because you were missing a helpful bit of grammar – a little twist that would have expressed what you wanted to say with perfect clarity.
That piece of grammar right there is something you're ready to learn.
You were very close to getting it right, and it's just that little bit of grammar that scuppered you.
That… is when you want to learn a piece of grammar.
Don't Learn Grammar Before You Really Need It
But the relentless focus on grammar that you see in virtually every language curriculum does something poisonous…
It instils in students the belief that they can't start speaking or using the language yet until they've learnt that grammar.
Can you imagine applying that logic to the piano?
“I'm only going to start playing the piano when I've mastered music theory.”
You’d never get anywhere!
We need a completely different approach to teaching grammar that is smarter than simply presenting a humongous list of rules that have to be learned.
In my Grammar Hero programme, for example, my way to help you learn grammar naturally is to show you that grammar in the context of really fun stories… so you get to see that grammar in action and learn it naturally from within stories… not through rules.
But you – as an independent learner – can break free of this “grammar trap” all by yourself by starting to speak and use the language right now, however good or bad you think your grammar might be.
Waiting to speak until you've learned more grammar will have you on an eternal hamster wheel.
Well, it's quite simple…
Do yourself a favour…
Put the textbooks away…
Get out there and speak…
And don’t learn grammar before you really need it.